NearlyÂ 7 years ago, the late Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) began a legislativeÂ effort to ban asbestos-containing products.Â Yesterday, the “Ban Asbestos in America Act” passed the Senate with a bi-partisan voice vote.
On introducing the measure, the bill’s author, Senator Murray, said:
“When I heard about Americans and people who were dying from absestos, I thought to myself, my gosh, I thought asbestos was banned many years ago.Â Â How can this be?Â Well,Â the fact is asbestos has never been banned [in theÂ U.S.] , today 2,500 metric tons of asbestos are being imported every year. It is in products such as hair dryers, ceiling tiles, it is in brakeÂ pads, and over 3,000 other products Americans are using and being exposed to every day.”Â
“any material formerly classified as tremolite, including winchite asbestos; and richterite asbestos; and any asbestiform amphibole mineral.”
Under the bill:
- EPA would be required to issue regulations “prohibiting persons from importing, manufacturing, processing, or distributing in commerce abstestos-containing materials” [1 year for a proposed rule and 1 more year for a final rule];
- CDC to establish a “mechanism by which to obtain, coordinate and provide data and specimens” from cancer registeries, the National Mesothelioma Virtual Registry and Tissue Bank, and other asbestos-related disease entities;
- NIOSH to prepare a report (within 12 months) on the “current state of science” on health effects related to non-asbestiform minerals and elongated mineral particles, methods for measuring and analyzing such materials, and recommendations for future research; and
- NIOSH to prepareÂ reports on “mode of action and health effects” of non-asbestiform minerals and elongated mineral particles, and sampling and analytical methods for measuring these materials.
The bill contains a number of other provisions, including possible exemptions from the ban if EPA determines that
“…the exemption would not result in an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment, and the person has made a good faith effort to develop, but has been unable to develop, a substance [substitute]…”
or if the use of asbestos-containing materials is sought by the Defense Department or NASA.
Senator Murray offered kind words of appreciation to Senator Isakson (R-GA) who was the lead Republican sponsor of the bill.
“I began with Senator Paul Wellstone, 6 years ago to try and pass this legislation.Â Of course, I lost my friend Senator Wellstone in an airplane crash.Â I thought to myself: Wow, how am I ever going to get this out of the Senate without his passion?Â
“Well, I was fortunate because I found another partner who was just as passionate, Senator Isakson from Georgia, who took up this banner with me, who has worked this bill through every way possible, because he too looked into the eyes of those families who were losing loved ones, members of their families today, because asbestos was exposing them to deadly diseases…I could not have done it without him.”
Senator Isakson said:
“Banning asbestos is simply the right thing to do.Â This bill provides the framework for how this country must go about achieving this goal.Â I plan to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to see it to the President’s desk.”
One of the issues that is not addressed head-on in the bill, but is the subject of further study, isÂ how to deal withÂ the long, thin mineral fibersÂ that are not currently defined by OSHA as “asbestos.”Â As Senator Isakson noted:
“OneÂ difficult issue to resolve involved the treatment of nonasbestiform minerals.Â These so-called ‘cleavage fragments’ that appear naturally and more abundantly than asbestos, are in land and dirt and are mined all across Georgia and in significant areas across the Nation.Â They are similar to asbestos in chemical make-up, but differ significantly in structure and many other respects.Â …Our bill makes no presumption as to the health effects of nonasbestiform minerals but rather enlists the Nation’s best scientists to study…to both differentiate these minerals according to the asbestos-related health risks, and distinguish between these minerals as they are identified in the natural, mixed dust environment.Â Asbestos, the path of its deadly health effects, the identification and differentiation of asbestos from other minerals especially in the natural mixed dust environment, are all complex areas of science and it is time for the Federal Government to pool its expertise scattered among a half-dozen agencies, to better understand the risks and how to properly identify the fibers of risk.”
Ah, yes.Â That’s theÂ kicker.Â No disrespect to Senator Isakson, but I sense he’s been listening to representatives of the mining industry.
We may never have all the scientific evidence we need to determine theÂ preciseÂ level of excess risk from exposure to each different type of long, thin mineral fiber.Â Â WorkersÂ at construction sites, quarries or other mining operationsÂ can be exposed to all sorts of mixed respirable mineralÂ fibers, andÂ even the best epidemiologists in theÂ world would be hard-pressedÂ to collect enough dataÂ on these exposures and long-termÂ health effects to make a reliable risk estimate.Â
Instead ofÂ suggesting that we can “study” our way out of this scientific uncertainty issue, let’s assumeÂ (for public health’s sake) that breathingÂ long, thin,Â durable, respirable mineral fibers is not good for a workers’ lungs.Â Employers should be required toÂ put measuresÂ in place (like water sprays and enclosed cabs with HEPAÂ filtered-ventilation systems)Â so dust exposure does not occur.
I’m all for scientific research on difficult toxicological and epidemiological issues, but not if it is used as an excuse to delay protections for workers’ health and safety.Â I’ll have my ears tuned and my eyes open for recommendations that MSHA’s long-awaited asbestos rule should be delayed pending the results of the studies required in the “Ban Asbestos in America Act.”
*Note: “Asbestos” in not a scientific term, but rather a commercial and regulatory term forÂ chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite-asbestos, anthophyllite-asbestos, and actinolite-asbestos.Â When health scientists, geologists and other expertÂ federal officials began toÂ investigate the serious health problems among residents ofÂ Libby, Montana, the contaminant-culprit whichÂ had polluted the entire town wasÂ not necessarilyÂ one of these “sixÂ regulated fibers,” but instead were other long, thin, durable respirable mineral fibers (e.g., winchite, richterite)Â whichÂ caused equally-debilitating and deadly disease.
Celeste Monforton, MPH is a senior research associate with the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy at the George Washington University School of Public Health.Â She worked at OSHA and MSHA from 1991-2001.